What is the overall aim of the social norms approach?

The overall aim is to correct misperceptions that people may have about a health behavior, eg the misperception that everyone smokes when in fact only one in four people smoke or that everyone allows smoking in their home when in fact 78% of people in YH say their home is smokefree. Studies have found that by correcting misperceptions, it can lead to more healthy behavior, ie shifting the focus from targeting the individual (people at risk of smoking)  to the environment (people living in risky environment in which smoking is the norm) is key to strengthening norms.

What is the key concept of strengthening norms?

The key concept is that wide spread misperceptions of what the norm is in a community can lead to an increase in negative behavior, eg if it is perceived that everyone in the community allows smoking in their home, people will tend to continue to do so as well, including those moving into the community.

How does the social norm approach differ from traditional approaches?

The social norms approach

  • does not use ‘hard hitting scare tactics’
  • uses credible science based statistics
  • focuses on healthy behaviours and attitudes; doesn’t show smoking or cigarettes
  • does not use negative images; uses only positive visuals
  • involves the local community from the very beginning
  • not draconian or directive, but instead uses a simple format to present information about healthy social norms back to the community

Why is the government promoting a social norms approach?

The government says the public do not heed top-down messages about risky behavior. It proposes that a much more powerful way of changing behavior without heavy-handed state regulation is making existing social norms transparent, ie nudging rather than nagging.

Why Strengthen smokefree norms?

Much of our behavior is influenced by our perceptions of how other members of our social group behave. According to leading behaviour economists, people make many decisions based on observing others and copying what they do. People are encouraged to sustain their behavior when they feel others approve of their actions.
Behavioural economics: seven principles for policy makers. www.neweconomics.org

For example, imagine someone is thinking about making their home smokefree. They are likely to be influenced by other members of their social network. Questions they might ask themselves inlcude: are my friends and family home smokefree? What would they think if I made my home smokefree and their home is not? Would they think I was trying to be better than them? Conversely they might think: all my neighbours have a smokefree home; I should do the same. Oftentimes these will not be consciously considered – but people’s perceptions of what they believe others to think and do are likely to influence whether or not they decide to make their home smokefree.

What is the evidence for a social norms approach in reducing smoking?

The California Tobacco Programme was the first to adopt a social norm approach to tackle smoking. The result was a rapid drop in heart disease and other smoking related diseases during a 15 year period. The programme yielded a 50 fold return on first 3-4 years of the programme. The authors concluded: “A comprehensive approach involving the general public, non-smokers and smokers alike, designed to change social norms is more effective in reducing tobacco use than just focusing on individual who smoke.
Zhang X, Cowling D et al The impact of social norms changes strategies on smokers’ quitting behavior. Tobacco control 2010’ 19 (suppl1) 51-55.

How do you take forward a smokefree social norms approach?

The most cost effective way of denormalising smoking is to focus locally at the grassroots level utilizing assets within the community. Taking a bottom-up approach ensures that the norm is embedded for sustainability. Major steps include:
1. Collecting baseline data on the prevailing smoking attitudes and behavior
2. Analyzing the data, identifying patterns of actual behavior, attitudes and perceived norms
3. Developing a campaign promoting the positive social norms messages that were identified. Identify communication channels to disseminate campaign.
4. Evaluating impact on smoking attitudes and behavior, plan ongoing actions

What if the norm is unhealthy?

In some instances the norm in a population is in fact an unhealthy one, eg the baseline data may find that the norm is for most people to smoke in their homes. In such cases, the intervention message could instead focus on:
1. People’s attitude eg most people would like to make their home smokefree
2. Another aspect of smokefree, eg most people think smoking should be banned in children’s play areas if the data supports the norm.
3. Correcting misperceptions of how normative the unhealthy behaviour is. When the norm is unhealthy, it is likely that the perception in the community is that the norm is far unhealthier still, eg if the norm is 52% of people allow smoking in their home the perception by the community is likely that it is much higher, eg 90%

Where can I get further information about social norms?


If you are interested in finding out more about social norms or commissioning a social norms project email SONIC@leeds.ac.uk